Tag Archives: workers

The Value(s) of Working-Class Jobs

When I was a kid growing up I looked up to my cousin. Ronald was twenty years my senior, and in his mid-twenties he decided to become a bus driver on London Transport. Whenever I saw him, I would be enthralled by his tales of the road, the ordinary stories of depot life, his work mates and his passengers. To a young kid, Ronald’s job made sense to me.  He did something tangibly worthwhile. My family didn’t own a car, so all our journeys involved some form of public transport, either by train or more usually by bus. In my universe, bus drivers had status. Their work was more intelligible than the labor of the Ford worker next door or the TV repairman across the street. These images of working-class work were reinforced in popular culture, and one of the most popular TV sitcoms of the decade was On the Buses,a series still being rerun somewhere in the further reaches of the UK TV schedule.  In the 1960s and 70s, we regularly saw representations of blue-collar work on our screens.

I was thinking about Ronald the other week as I read a biographical piece about the newly appointed Conservative government minister for the UK Department of Media, Culture and Sport, Sajid Javid MP. By anyone’s measure, the 44 year old Javid has had a stellar career as an investment banker with Deutsche Bank, eventually becoming a board member with a reputed £3 million annual income and a luxury lifestyle including private schooling for his children.

By contrast, Javid’s father arrived in the UK in 1961 from Pakistan with only a pound in his pocket, and he worked various jobs including driving buses in Bristol. That personal history is now a central part of the political biography of the son. Bus driving and similar jobs seem significant for politicians and journalists these days, and, they presumably assume, for their audiences.

We can read this ‘son of a bus driver’ narrative in various ways. The first would be the ‘look how far he’s come’ school of thought, which highlights the son’s battles against the odds to get to university and then on to a thoroughly middle-class trajectory. The second version uses the story to define the son as ‘a Conservative Party MP with roots in the working-class community’. Both positions at once use and discard working-class identity as the credibility it affords recedes into the background. What is notable is that being able to claim to be the son of a working-class bus driver still has traction, perhaps especially in a party seen as elitist and out of touch, led by a privately educated cadre of bluebloods.

But there’s a third way of reading this narrative of upward mobility: noting the dominant middle-class perspective it reveals. While class background is noteworthy, it is also safely tucked away a generation before. That means we don’t have to address questions of class or structural inequality directly. Rather than asking why don’t we recruit MPs from the ranks of bus drivers – or care workers, cleaners, and shop assistants – this dominant middle-class narrative naturalizes the idea that we should, and perhaps have to, draw our political class from people from who are already part of an elite privileged middle class. If being from a working-class background has not harmed Jarid’s political capital, I suspect an actual bus driver applying to stand as an MP for any of the mainstream parties would find that capital has little currency for contemporary selection panels.

This all leads me to worry about what will happen in the future, since all the mainstream UK political parties are increasingly recruiting potential members from an ever narrower band socially, economically, and educationally. Will a next generation of politicians find some kind of status and kudos from claiming a grandparental working-class background?

This distance between political elites and average people found expression in debates last year about MPs salaries. The task of determining MPs remuneration has been stripped from them – yes, they used to decide their own pay – and given instead to an independent parliamentary body.  It recommended in December 2013 that members should get an 11% rise, taking their pay from £66,000 to £77,000. The average salary in the UK is £26,500. The debate around this proposal shows that many politicians have come to see their elite peers, who earn about three times the average salary, as typical and representative of British society. This is further reinforced by the fact that many of the current cabinet, 23 out of 29, are millionaires. Even the opposition Labour Party’s shadow cabinet can claim seven millionaires. The result is that working-class jobs and the people who do them are outside the circle of experience of most senior politicians.

My cousin Ronald retired after working on the buses in east London for four decades last year. When he joined London Transport in the 1970s his job had some real measure of status.  Indeed, London busmen in the 1950s (and they were all men then) were described as radical aristocrats due to their pay and conditions of service. Gradually through his career my cousin’s job dropped in status, becoming less desirable as the decades went by. He had to move depots several times as a result of corporate reorganisation and was made redundant at least once as the now privatized company he worked for lost the contract for the routes he drove. Nonetheless he retired on a company pension from a still heavily unionised job. Ronald has two children now in their twenties I know they don’t work on the buses, but perhaps they could try out as politicians? After all, their dad was a bus driver.

Tim Strangleman

Better Jobs Drive Better Business

Good jobs are hard to find.  Hard jobs – entailing bone-tiring work, low wages, and limited or no advancement opportunities — are all too plentiful.  And in our country that’s been a big and growing problem dating back at least three decades.

HouseholdIncomeSince the early 1980s, job growth — and especially job quality – wilted in the face of intersecting economic, political, and demographic forces.  As usual, the short end of the stick is found in the hands of the working class and lower middle-income households.  Earnings stagnated for these groups as poverty jumped and un- and underemployment took and continues to extract heavy tolls.

These aren’t just statistics for me.  They are also my family story.  My father and two siblings worked for most of their lives in manufacturing.  I made it to college by working a few summers in a local plant.  I took away both a withdrawal card from the Machinists Union and many lessons about work and life.  But my career trajectory changed, and I went to work for a series of state and federal elected officials. This was an “up close and personal” viewpoint on how government – at the state, federal, and local levels – can expand opportunities for good jobs and stronger, more resilient communities.  But lately, I’ve grown pessimistic about the prospects for political or policy changes that might make a real difference.  Gridlock and paralysis spread – perhaps an expected result of a “conservative” governance apparatus.  Politics can be a noble calling and sometimes produces courageous heroes.  But recently, we’ve seen too much ignobility and too little spine.

That’s part of why I left the public sector.  Now I work in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, as a program officer in a foundation. Much of my work and that of my colleagues at The Hitachi Foundation focuses on how foundations can use their tools and resources to address challenges and expand opportunities for low wealth individuals, families, and communities.

Most philanthropy targets social, educational, or support services, while others promote policy changes.  A third category aims at organizing or direct action at the worker, community, city, or even national level.  Each has its merits, and the sector makes almost $50 billion in grants annually. But only a fraction of that, about $14 billion, is targeted to the “economically disadvantaged.”  If you divided that into equal shares and only consider the 46 million people living in poverty in the U.S., it would only deliver $303 per person each year.  That’s not much of a supplement.

So philanthropy in general and our foundation in particular must focus our efforts.  The Hitachi Foundation is working on the role that good businesses can play in creating many more good jobs and improving opportunities for lower-wage workers to gain earnings and advance.  Many philanthropists, like many in working-class studies, are skeptical of the business world.  But our experience suggests that business leaders are not monolithic in their viewpoints.  If we provide evidence that “good jobs” can generate growth, profits, and happy customers, many more businesses can be spurred to take action that will benefit lower-wage and frontline workers.

Over the past five years, we’ve amassed compelling evidence that some businesses create social value even as they pursue a profitable and sustainable bottom-line.  Before we did the research, we expected that specific HR and training practices would be the generator behind significant gains in earning and career acceleration for frontline workers.  That was true in part.  But we were surprised to see that workers and employers made the largest gains when companies innovated in the products or services they offered, in the methods for producing or delivering good and services, and in HR practices and training programs.  In retrospect, of course, these strategies are interrelated. With new products or services and/or innovation in methods for producing them, there’s a premium on engaging and retaining workers with skills and experience.  And on top of that, the talent and skills grown by workers who are already in the business are often the best and most valuable fit.  All that can yield a larger overall pie that can be shared with workers.  Mutual Gain Bargaining has a history of pursuing similar ends in the context of a labor agreement.  Whether a plant is organized or not, gains aren’t always shared.  But where they are not, the workers’ incentives are poorly aligned with business goals.  Good workers with skills will be more inclined to look for other options and leave when they find them.

In the Good Companies @ Work program, we’ve collected stories of just under 100 firms that attribute their success to their frontline workers. These companies outperform their peers while providing quality jobs and pathways to the middle-class.  For example, Marlin Steel made a dramatic transition from old technology, a product in declining demand, and outmoded methods to become an innovative leader.  This Baltimore firm made baskets for bagel bakeries and stores.  But demand declined sharply according to the company because the rise of low-carb diets. Marlin quite literally “reinvented” their business and that made it possible to shift from making bagel baskets to supplying Boeing.  Today, Marlin has a more flexible approach to manufacturing a different set of products.  In part, they use some advanced technologies such as robotics and laser cutters.  The company did not make a wholesale change in their workforce.  Their core group of workers was with the company before, during, and now after the transition.  The company and the workers did invest in training, and that expanded their ability to manufacture higher quality products with less time from the initial order through design and manufacturing and on to delivery.  Another innovation at the company directly ties  wages of production floor workers to skills.  The more machines and processes they are capable of operating, the higher their hourly rate.  The firm also has a production bonus system that shares profits with workers, who can earn as much as 40% above their hourly earnings by meeting weekly team goals.

Good companies are more likely to generate good jobs.  But we’re not naïve.  Many – maybe even most – corporate or business directors are driven by short-term profit maximization.  But many are not. They bring their personal values beyond the plant gate or office door.  And those values help interest them in offering opportunities to improve wages and working conditions.  But values and motivation take business owners only so far.  We find good evidence that for many businesses, doing the right thing for and with frontline workers is not just consistent with the imperative for businesses to survive and thrive.  In many cases, it is essential to staying profitable and positioning the company for the future.

We will continue and deepen our efforts to help businesses make that connection in the years ahead.  And we’ll share what we’re learning, because we see communication as key to altering the dominant paradigm that profit margins require companies to put the maximum squeeze on labor costs.

Why focus on business to expand opportunity for low wealth, lower-wage people?  Because we believe that it works.  We’ve seen sustainable, profitable models in action. Equally important, business has more resources to create more and better jobs than either philanthropy or government.

Our goals include supporting and fomenting changes inside the plant gate, or with patient care teams, or in other settings. If we can do so that will create progress that is not dependent on the next grant or election cycle.  Neither the public sector nor the foundation world has a good track record for sustained focus and effort.  Causes rise and fall with the next crisis or new opportunity.  But strategies that yield real benefits to the bottom line and the front line, generating economic gains for companies and workers, have the potential to stick, expand, and spread.

Mark Popovich

Mark Popovich is a senior program officer at The Hitachi Foundation.  Following two decades focused on public policy as a staffer, researcher and advocate, he’s spent the last fourteen years working at the intersection of philanthropy and business.

Advertising Work

I’m always interested in popular images of working-class life, but like most people, I barely see TV commercials anymore, so it took me a while to notice a recent trio of ads that use work as a marketing theme.  Advertisers use images to sell things, of course, and that’s part of what makes these ads so problematic – and so interesting.

The first ad, promoting Cadillac’s electric car, features actor Neal McDonough talking about how people in other countries think Americans are crazy for working so hard.  He begins outside an upscale home, standing hear a very nice pool, asking “Why do we work so hard?  For what? For this? For stuff?” People in other countries “stop by the café” as they “stroll home. They take August off.”  “We,” on the other hand – presumably not only white wealthy folks like the narrator but most of us – are “crazy, driven, hard-workin’ believers.”  That’s what made it possible for us to go to the moon, and that’s why “we’re the only ones going back there.”  Americans are better, the ad suggests, because of the American dream: “It’s pretty simple: you work hard, you create your own luck, and you’ve gotta believe anything is possible.”

While Cadillac rehearses the old myth that anyone can succeed, economists are reporting that few Americans actually live that Horatio Alger storyline.  Upward mobility hasn’t declined, a recent paper showed; it’s been low for decades.  But as the ad makes clear, the myth of the self-made man still has resonance, both for those who might think the ad describes them but even more, I fear, for those who desperately want to believe that “anything is possible.”  If anyone can create their own luck, then the only reason anyone might struggle is that they didn’t try hard enough.  To promote this narrative while economic inequality is growing is cynical, arrogant, and mean-spirited.

The Cadillac ad is easy to criticize, since its message is so clearly problematic.  Two other ads offer more positive images of work and workers, which make them at once appealing and appalling.  Chrysler’s latest “Made in Detroit” Super Bowl ad features yet another white male pop culture icon: Bob Dylan.  In this year’s ad, Dylan touts American creativity and pride, and he encourages us to let Germany make beer, Switzerland make watches, and Asia make cell phones. “We will build your car,” he says, leaning down over a barroom pool table.  The ad features images of cowboys, cheerleaders, James Dean, Rosie the Riveter, old-style diners, and the American highway system, as well as images of auto plants and of Detroit today.  Here, the call to creativity isn’t illustrated by technical innovators but by someone getting a tattoo, by graffiti on a stone bridge, and by Dylan, turning a guitar in his hand, a move that is echoed in a clip from an old industrial film, showing a turning piece of machinery.  Like Cadillac, Chrysler is appealing to American arrogance, but with a more working-class approach.

The last ad appeals even more directly to working-class viewers, in part by focusing on  deindustrialization and manufacturing jobs.   It opens with images of an abandoned factory, as TV host Mike Rowe intones in a voice over, “At one time, I made things, and I took pride in the things I made.”  Then, “the gears stopped turning.”  But, the voice continues, “I’m still here” (ironically, this echoes a song by Si Kahn, “We’re Still Here,” written for a 1983 documentary about Youngstown steelworkers’ efforts to buy and run the mills that corporations had recently shut down – a connection the ad’s authors almost certainly didn’t know about).  As the images shift to someone sweeping an empty factory floor and then to laughing groups of workers, the narrator predicts that “we will rise again, and we will build things, and build families, and build dreams.  It’s time to get back to what America does best. Because work is a beautiful thing.”   It’s an appealing message, one that reflects some core values of working-class studies.  We believe in the power of work, we know what was lost in deindustrialization, and we want to see a return of good jobs that they offer a decent paycheck and a chance to feel proud of one’s work.

Then we see the closing title, showing that the ad is for Wal-Mart, promising to invest in new manufacturing jobs in the U.S.  This is just one of several ads Wal-Mart has put out that at least indirectly respond to widespread critiques of its poor treatment of workers.  In others, Wal-Mart workers talk about getting promoted, health insurance, and support for education, leaving out other “benefits,” like advice on signing up for public assistance.  Critics of the Wal-Mart business model and advocates for low-wage workers have viewed these ads with skepticism, but this latest one elicited an even stronger response, probably because Rowe is known for talking about jobs that are dirty, unusual, and traditionally working-class.  He has also formed a foundation to encourage people to pursue skilled trades rather than higher education.  Without talking about class directly, Rowe’s website suggests that working-class jobs can be good jobs, and that’s an important message, especially at a time when so many working-class jobs are so bad.  You can see how some might have expected Rowe to refuse to speak for the company most strongly identified with bad working-class jobs.

In response to the ad, Jobs with Justice (JwJ), a non-profit that aims to make the bad working-class jobs a little better, targeted Rowe in a letter-writing campaign. Thousands of people have written to encourage him to meet with Wal-Mart workers and challenging him to rescind what they see as his endorsement of the company. Rowe has posted a series of responses on his facebook page, accusing JwJ of misunderstanding his role – he insists he’s not a spokesman for Wal-Mart – and criticizing JwJ’s tactics.  If you care so much about workers, he asks at one point, why disrupt my Foundation’s efforts to help young working-class people find good jobs – jobs that are, he points out, significantly better than the ones held by the workers JwJ advocates for? Rowe also challenges JwJ: “But even if Wal-Mart falls short, don’t discount the power of a positive message in the mainstream media. We need more good messages around American manufacturing and hard work. . . . Why not encourage more messages around a topic that can actually help your mission and the people you represent?”

Good question. The message that we need more manufacturing jobs is, indeed, a good one – even though today’s manufacturing jobs don’t offer anything like the pay and benefits of the ones people lost when those factories originally shut down.  And yes, we do need more messages that make clear how good jobs improve people’s lives. We also want those images to be used in ways that really do promote workers’ interests.  The problem with the Wal-Mart ad isn’t the way it represents work and workers.  It’s that it uses those images to promote a company that we know contributes to the problems workers face.

Advertising works in part by creating illusions and by manipulating viewers, so we shouldn’t be surprised that advertisers are responding to economic inequality by capitalizing on the longing many Americans feel for economic hope. They know we’re nostalgic for a time when American made things and when hard work seemed to ensure a better life.  They know that we want to believe what the guy in the Cadillac promises – “anything is possible” if only we work hard enough. And they know what we would like to forget: that ads like this work.

Sherry Linkon

What about the Workers?

During the mid-1980s I was a member of the UK Labour Party. One of the most memorable branch meetings I went to – OK there isn’t a lot of competition – was after I had finished an early shift on the London Underground where I worked as a signalman at the time. I made my way back from London to my home town outside the capital and went straight to the meeting still in my work uniform. I still remember the look when other members of the branch saw me and another friend who also worked on the railways enter the room.  I should explain, like many Labour Party branches mine was filled with teachers and other middle class occupations, including fairly senior executives of state-owned companies. Their collective reaction wasn’t contempt, and I wouldn’t want to claim that.  Rather, it betrayed a sense that people in uniform didn’t quite fit. What gave me the confidence to stay in that room was a working-class pride instilled in me in large part by the politics and culture of my workplace, which taught me not to be ashamed of my blue collar.

I have been reminded of this incident over the last couple of weeks as class in the Labour Party and more widely in British politics has come to the surface. The most recent manifestation is over the increasingly troubled relationship between the trade union movement and the Labour Party under its leader Ed Miliband. After the electoral defeat of 2010, it was widely understood Miliband’s success was largely due to the support of the trade union vote rather than the other blocks within the Party’s Electoral College – MPs and ordinary members. The conservative media instantly labelled Miliband ‘Red Ed’ and suggested that he was now a creature of the union movement. While this mood music has played out over the last three years, the volume has recently increased due to the selection process for a safe Labour seat of Falkirk in Scotland. Local party members have alleged that the Unite union, one of the biggest unions in the UK and one of the largest donors to the Labour Party, has been attempting to fix the election by packing out the membership of the local party with union members. I will spare readers the gruesome details of the battle, but essentially Miliband called foul and asked the local police to investigate the process.

The rights and wrongs of Falkirk are complex, but the case has shone a spotlight on the class demographics of the Labour Party. Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, has sought to portray his organization’s actions as a strategy for ensuring that a working-class candidate is selected rather than a middle class political wonk, what he would see as the equivalent of a Washington insider. However, as the sitting MP for the constituency, Eric Joyce,  recently wrote in the Guardian newspaper, while  McCluskey has suggested that ‘middle class’ people like “shouldn’t be parachuted in,” his union’s candidate worked in an MP’s office.   Joyce also pointed out that McCluskey earns a middle-class salary of £122,000.

No doubt, shifts in the economy and especially the deindustrialization of many of the traditional areas of Labour support have wrought inevitable changes in the make-up of the Parliamentary Labour Party.  While Labour now has more female MPs and ethnic minority representation, however, the base of candidates from the working class has eroded. In the last Labour Government (1997-2010), three of the most high profile cabinet members claimed working-class origins – Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary), John Prescott (Deputy Prime Minster) and Alan Johnson (Home Secretary). And while Straw cut his teeth in student politics, Prescott and Johnson emerged through workplace unionism. Prescott was a seaman and worked as a waiter on board ships. In Parliament, he was often ridiculed for his working-class accent, with Tory MPs from more elite backgrounds shouting requests for cocktails during his speeches in the House of Commons. Alan Johnson has just written a well-received memoir of his early life growing up poor in London in a single parent family.  But these high profile Labour Cabinet members from working class backgrounds are part of an aging and disappearing cohort – Prescott is 75, Straw 67, and Johnson 63 – nearing or at the end of their active political life. The ladder that enabled them to enter national politics is either no longer there or much diminished. The typical Labour MP now is far more likely to come to frontline politics through higher education, often with a spell as a political intern. Over time, working-class communities have fewer politically active role models as class politics in the workplace and neighborhoods have been hollowed out. Politics has become something done to working-class people rather than something they or their peers actively engage in.

What difference does it make who represents voters in Parliament? A working-class perspective on life roots one in daily concerns, and it makes elected representatives think twice before they make assumptions about what ordinary people think and do. I wrote in a previous blog about the new group Blue Collar Conservatism, and recently another group called Renewal launched.  Its leader recently suggested that if the Tories are to win in 2015 they need to be nothing less than “the new workers’ party,” with policies appealing to black and ethnic minority voters as well as trade unions and public sector workers. Many of the people around these Conservative groups are unafraid to self-identify as working class.

It was thirty years ago this summer that I left school, began work on the railway, and joined both the union and the Labour Party. It would be interesting to see what the reaction would be if a sixteen year old turned up at a local Labour branch today — perhaps not in an ill-fitting grey railway worker’s uniform but in one from a shop or a fast-food outlet. I hope they would be welcomed. But given the lack of the working-class pride and working-class political role models that drew me into the Labour Party, I wonder whether a young person today would even bother to show up.

Tim Strangleman

The Last Good Blue-Collar Job?

A journalist from a Scottish newspaper contacted me last month wanting my reaction to the announcement that 2,300 people had applied for eighteen trainee driver posts to service a soon to be reopened rail line in the Scottish Boarders running to the south of Edinburgh. With nearly 128 applicants for each of these jobs, the reporter was keen to discover what was behind this headlong rush. Well, to be precise, what I think she was after were some conditioned clichés about working on the railway, the romance of the iron road, and how it is (still) every little boy’s wish to be a train driver.

She seemed a little crestfallen when I suggested some alternative reasons why these new posts might be so valued.  First, the trainee’s starting salary was $33,230, about average in the UK before you take in to account the rise to $58,400 when fully qualified. I also suggested that recruits could expect a good pension, reduced travel prices, and, above all, the kind of security that many workers can only dream of. This is all in the context of a double dip recession and high unemployment levels. By this time, I could sense that young journalist’s imagined simple story of boyhood romance was morphing into something far more complex and probably less exciting.

She tried one last tack with me. ‘But why’ she asked, ‘were these jobs so good’? My answer was straightforward; railway work in the UK remains one of the strongest bastions of working-class unionisation. When the industry was privatised, or denationalised, two decades ago, conservative politicians made little attempt to hide that their goals included smashing the unions, reducing levels of pay, and eroding conditions of service. Contrary to the conservatives’ hopes, some railway workers have seen their real pay rates increase considerably, and this is especially true of the drivers.

Hot on the heels of the story about the new railway jobs came a similar story from the English Midlands about 1,701 people applying for three full-time and five part-time barista posts with coffee chain Costa Coffee. In other words, these more mundane, less obviously ‘romantic’ vacancies attracted more applicants per position – roughly 212 applicants for each job — than did the train driver openings. Among the biggest differences between the two jobs is the pay rate.  An article in the Guardian pointed out that no barista in London, let alone in the more economically deprived Midlands, gets within ten grand of the national average wage of £26,500.  Another key difference is that driving a train requires a year or more of theoretical and practical training while – and no offence to baristas anywhere – serving coffee does not involve a lengthy apprenticeship, much as some of us may want to fetishize its production. The relatively greater interest in the barista jobs may reflect many things, but it is fundamentally a function of the poorly performing economy and the dire labor market in the UK.

Underlying both stories is a common question that must confuse the presumably middle-class newspaper readership: why would so many people want to do blue-collar work? One answer to this question might lie in reflections being made about working- and middle-class aspiration on both sides of the Atlantic, reflections that reassess the value of blue-collar work.  The most prominent example comes from US writer Matthew B. Crawford’s bestseller Shop Class as Soulcraft, subtitled An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Crawford’s basic thesis is that the middle-class obsession with getting the ‘good job’ often ends in a cubicle.  It may be a very nice cubicle, in which one may be able to exercise all sorts of autonomy over the type of posters and humorous postcards placed on its walls, but it’s still a cubicle. Crawford contrasts life slumped in front of a screen between cardboard dividers with the freedom and autonomy still enjoyed by many working-class jobs.  He makes much of his own chosen career in motorcycle maintenance, in which he enjoys endless problem solving mixed with extensive banter with other motorcycle aficionados. While Crawford enters this world from a background of relative educational and financial privilege, he does tap into something about the too often hidden rewards of working-class working life, namely the culture of workplaces shaped by ordinary men and women.

Similar revelations can be found in other accounts of middle-class forays into working-class culture, such as Don J. Snyder’s The Cliff Walk: A Job Lost and a Life Found. Snyder recounts how he lost a tenure-track college post and descended down the class ladder. In a fascinating story, he relates how he found redemption through labor with a set of working-class builders who overlooked his technical incompetence because they could see he needed the job. Snyder contrasts the basic humanitarian gesture involved in helping out someone in need with his experience of the middle-class world he had fallen from where many former friends and colleagues had simply turned their backs on him.

In my current job, I am occasionally contacted by the media about the current state of work, and not just about railways. Much like my students, journalists seem to assume that manual labor or blue-collar work is to be avoided at all costs. I always make a point of asking the often young journalist or assistant researchers about their own work and the conditions they enjoy. Usually, they describe a long-hours culture, working on temporary contracts, switching between employers who contract to bigger media players. To these younger media workers, the working-class world of blue-collar work must seem a strangely alien one, where workers more often co-operate than compete and place emphasis on the importance of dignity and respect for a job well done. No wonder they want to produce stories about this type of old-fashioned work.

Tim Strangleman

Home Health Workers: In Demand But Not Protected

In the nearly 20 years I’ve spent organizing long term care workers, I hadn’t really personally experienced the difficulty of being a care giver.   I worked the policy, political, advocacy, organizing and bargaining pieces in the Union for home care workers.  The women I organized were strong and bold and everyone had a story to tell. We told their stories of care giving in the hope that the workforce would no longer remain invisible and would begin to be seen as the emerging face of the labor movement along with immigrants and service workers.

I have a story to tell as well now.  My mom and dad are in their 80s and in poor health.  Caring for them is the most difficult work I have performed in my life, both mentally and physically.  I moved back home two years ago to care for them.  Ten years ago I used to fear that they would die.  Now I fear that they will live. Each day brings its own lessons in compassion, like when I wake up in the morning and there is no hot water to shower because Mom got up in the middle of the night and left the water running, or, when I am ready to walk out the door to take my son to pre-school and Dad’s colostomy bag breaks and I have a mess to clean up.  Then Dad begins to cry, I try to comfort him, and my son is late for school.   I think back to the women I’ve organized and look to them for strength. I do this for free, which prevents me from working full-time elsewhere, but the workers who did this for a living, mostly women and people of color, really aren’t doing much better financially.

Home health workers are among the most in demand but lowest paid workers in America.  There are 2.5 million caregivers in the workforce, and that number will grow over the next decade because of aging baby boomers, many of whom seem to prefer to receive care at home. Employment in care giving is expected to grow by 70% from 2010 to 2020, much faster than average for all occupations. Over one million workers in this industry have no health insurance. 90% of direct care workers are women, and many are primary breadwinners in their families. Caregivers are paid minimum wage or, if they’re lucky, just slightly above.  Earning such low wages with no health insurance means that 46% of direct care workers rely on some type of government program, such as food stamps, Medicaid, housing, child care, energy assistance, or transportation assistance.

Over one million direct care workers are consigned to near-poverty because of the structure of their employment. The home care workers bathe, change, dress, and feed their clients.  They also perform home-making duties, such as cooking, cleaning, and shopping. These workers face whatever they have to, depending on the kind of day their clients may be having.  Even if the home care agency tells them that they have one hour to get a client dressed, fed, and settled in his/her chair for the day, it may take longer.  But workers do not leave their clients.  Instead, they work “off the clock.”  A home care worker may have four clients for the day but does not get paid for mileage or travel time between clients, much less any benefits for themselves. If the worker’s client becomes ill and is admitted to the hospital, admitted to the nursing home for further care, or dies, or if the family takes the client to their home for the holidays, the worker simply loses that job and does not get paid.  There are no sick days and no vacation days.

Home care workers may be employed by an agency or be independent providers. In either case, the work environment includes a number of safety and health hazards: blood-borne pathogens and biological hazards, latex sensitivity, ergonomic hazards from client lifting, violence, hostile animals, and unhygienic and dangerous conditions.  They may also face hazards on the road as they drive from client to client.

Unfortunately, these workers have been denied the right to organize and bargain in some states, like Ohio. Home care workers are also excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act, making them ineligible for overtime, including overnight stays at a client’s home. President Obama spent a day working as a home care worker in California not long after announcing his candidacy in 2007.  Last year, the President proposed a revising a Labor Department rule that would provide FLSA protections to home care workers, and the final rule is still being deliberated.  Guess who opposes the rule change?  The home care agencies.  Agencies receive at least $15 billion of Medicaid money annually for personal care services and are happy to have government money, which fueled a 9% average yearly increase in revenue between 2001 and 2009.  Government becomes harmful, it seems, only when setting a floor under workers’ wages.  The fight isn’t about raising the minimum wage or getting overtime legalized-that would still leave home care workers poor.  It’s about winning some labor standards, rights, and security after decades of losing them.

What happens to this growing element of the working class matters for the shape of our economy, the fate of unionism, and the establishment of a decent standard of living for all.

Debra Timko

Debra Timko was a leading health care organizer for 20 years and is now an independent health care researcher studying the lives of health care workers in Northeast Ohio

Restoring Traditional America

Over the weekend The Daily Kos highlighted a cartoon from Tom the Dancing Bug (cartoonist Rueben Bolling) that responded to Bill O’Reilly’s election night claim that Obama’s win signaled the death of traditional America. According to O’Reilly, “the demographics are changing, it’s not a traditional American anymore.” Bolling wondered what would happen if Barack Hussein Obama traveled back in time to the world of Leave it to Beaver. In this imaginary scenario, Obama tells the Cleavers of his plan to raise the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest Americans, reduce the gap between CEO pay and that of the lowest paid employees, and bolster the social safety net. The “Beave” and his family point out that those features were already in place in their traditional 1960s America. “Golly, mister,” the Beave exclaims, “I think you’re bringing back traditional America.”

I do, too. I am writing a book about how workers and unions were represented in 1950s popular culture.  In Striking Images: Labor Unions on Screen and in the Streets in the 1950s, I argue that workers were represented in popular culture more often, and more positively, than we remember. This is, in part, because union membership was at its highest point in U.S. history (roughly 35% of all US households). Unions were also active, not passive. There were more than 30,000 strikes over the course of the 1950s.  In other words, union membership was traditional.

For example, in 1965 Eisenhower, declared that “the protection of the right of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively is the firm and permanent policy of the Eisenhower Administration.” Rachel Maddow once quipped about Eisenhower’s relatively liberal policies that she was “in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican party platform.”

As we return to a more traditional America, how are ordinary workers being represented in popular culture? This is a question we often ask on this blog, and we make our share of withering critiques, as Susan Ryan did when she addressed the phenomenon of “extreme work” reality television and how workers are being exploited in front of and behind the camera.

But there are some other more positive, and possibly even authentic ways in which workers are being represented in popular culture. Here’s a quick run down:

Striking workers are back in the news. Thanks to the massive (and largely successful) Chicago teacher’s strike and a well-organized blitz of Black Friday job actions at Walmarts across the country, the mainstream media has been covering strikes with more sympathy than in years past. Do a search for “Black Friday” and “workers” and more than 2 million hits pop up. While some of the coverage of Black Friday’s job actions underplayed the overall impact of the Walmart actions, other headlines suggested the range and the power of the strikes which took place in more than 100 cities in 46 states.

The Ed Show. Ed Schultz, the one time sports broadcaster and conservative shock jock now spins his blue-collar bluster in a more progressive direction on MSNBC every weeknight at 8:00 PM. Schultz starts every show with the tag line “Let’s get to work.” If you were watching The Ed Show last week you would have seen coverage of the raw deal that Hostess workers were given in the Twinkie show down, a piece about the unionization of exotic dancers, a report on a union on the rise in Phoenix, Arizona, and an exposé on what Walmart really pays its workers. You won’t find this much working-class related news in video form in one place anywhere else.

Blue: America at Work and Blue: Portrait of an American Worker. In a coincidence of naming, two photographers of the contemporary American labor scene have titled their projects “Blue.” Ian Wagreich’s Blue: America at Work was “kickstarted” in August and includes stunning black and white portraits of American workers in industrial settings. The photographs are visually gorgeous, and they are as much as about aestheticizing the industrial landscape as they are about giving a voice to individual workers. They remind me of Charles Sheeler’s arresting photographs of the Ford River Rouge plant. Waigreich’s work photographs are currently on view (until December 10th at Washington D.C.’s Art Museum of the Americas in a show called “On Labor”). Photographer Carl Corey’s photographs from his collection Blue: Portrait of an American Worker are in color, and provide a more literal “close up” of the workers themselves. One of Corey’s goals in taking these photographs, as he explained in an interview with The Wooly Pulpit, was to advocate for American workers: “my hope is awareness will breed support for the American Worker.” The workers look proud, even stoic, and the photographs remind me a bit of the classic worker portraits taken by Milton Rogovin.

Current TV’s profile of the American worker. During the lead up to the election, Current TV posted a new worker profile every day for 30 days. Thirteen of the workers profiled were women, and 10 were African American, Latino, or Asian. The jobs covered included cop, firefighter, graphic designer, bus driver, Boeing mechanic, bartender, CPA, nurse, farmworker, and web developer. The profiles included detailed interviews, includingquestions about union membership and political leanings. Though not all of the workers profiled were working class, the interviews echoed common themes. Everyone who had health insurance was grateful for it, and everyone who did not have it wanted it. When asked “what is the one thing you could change about your job if you could,” almost everyone wanted better pay and/or benefits. One of the most inspiring quotes came from the Boeing mechanic, Monico Bretana, the highest paid union worker in the group: “I would have to say that I’m a working guy; I work for my money. Just like everybody else, I just want to be treated fairly, I just want to have a decent living wage, decent benefits to cover me and my family, and the union has provided that for us. And I want people to know that unions are not what people perceive anymore. We’re here to help the middle class, we’re here to help maintain a good living standard.”

Now doesn’t that sound sort of like the 1950s? Of course, I don’t want to go back to the 1950s altogether. I don’t want to go back to Jim Crow America, or Operation Wetback America, or Mad Men America. But when it comes to taxes on the wealthy (can we get the marginal tax rate back to the 1950s rate of 91%?), the tradition of union membership, and images of proud, beautiful blue-collar workers, I would be happy to go back in time.

Kathy M. Newman

Class and the Olympics

By the time you read this the Olympics and Paralympics will be over in London. Both sets of games have been very popular in Britain and have stimulated thousands of column inches of media interest.  In amongst the coverage of sport the issue of class has emerged in a number of different contexts.

Even before the games had begun Londoners’ ire was raised by the dedicated ‘Games Lanes’ dedicated to traffic of the Olympic ‘family.’ In amongst the grumbles was a noticeable critique that these transport arteries seemed to be more about ferrying elite members of the ‘family’ from their five-star hotels in West London and less about getting competing athletes to their venues –the West end of London has always been the poshest part of the city due to the prevailing winds.  Industry, and the majority of working-class communities who worked in them, tended to be planted in the East end where the Games were located. When challenged on this exclusivity, Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), rather bizarrely claimed that his Committee were workers and that “We are working-class people.” Defending the IOC encampment in the Park Lane Hilton, Rogge made an argument about workers like himself and his colleagues  needing adequate conditions and was quoted as saying “I am sorry but in three-star hotels you will not find the facilities there are in this hotel: conference rooms, simultaneous translations- this is something only more upscale hotels have.” To be fair, I find the same myself.

Arguably the most interesting and deeper reflection on class came in the debate stimulated over the social and educational background of British medal winners, especially the over-representation of privately educated medal winners among the successes. This sparked a debate about the lack of opportunity of access less well-off children and young people get to certain sports, such as rowing and especially the equestrian events. While the privately educated make up 7% of Britain’s population, privately educated athletes at one point had won over 60% of the medals.  This proportion later improved, but not before Conservative politicians and media attempted to explain the disparity by claiming that this was proof that state schools discouraged competitive sport rather than structural and cultural issues around access to training facilities and equipment.

Class, or rather working-class history, was reasonably well represented in the Olympic opening ceremony. While it may have left most of the world’s viewing audience mildly bemused, the show included many nods to working-class politics and class struggle. Most obvious was the part of the performance where the utopia of pre-industrial rural England was swept aside by the industrial revolution. Stovetop-hatted capitalists gathered in small huddles surveying the creation of dark satanic mills, or at least their chimneys, tended to by a grimy faced proletariat. Again, some right-wingers saw this and other aspects of the show as evidence of left-wing bias, and the director being ‘anti-business.’ Even more interesting was the way this narrative of work and class was conveniently constrained to the representation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As an amusing postscript to that aspect of the performance, the next day three of the volunteer actors who played the ‘factory hands’ in the ceremony were interviewed on national television. The curious interviewer asked the group what their day jobs were in real life. Their individual answers gave a fascinating insight in to the changing nature of Britain’s economy: the first was a civil servant, the second an accountant, and the third worked in ‘new media.’ So Britain’s industrial workers of the past were played by middle-class workers of the new economy.

There were, of course, many real workers on site during the opening ceremony, most notably at its climax where construction workers involved in building parts of the Olympic Park at Stratford formed a guard of honour for the Olympic flame as it entered the stadium. Of course, the comprehensive commentary didn’t mention that at least one of the construction firms working on the site is under investigation for blacklisting workers and compiling a database of those who raised concerns about workplace health and safety. These included trade unionists as well as non- activist workers who had particular concerns.  More embarrassing for the Conservative Party was that at least one of the firms involved in this illegal activity – Sir Robert McAlpine – was a substantial corporate donor to the Party.

One final aspect of class around the Olympics, and especially the Olympic Park itself, can be seen in the erasure of evidence of working-class culture and industry on the site.  Much of the commentary on the games focused on the role of regeneration of what was usually referred to as a “post-industrial wasteland.” This ignored the fact that many working-class jobs and working-class communities had been moved after the games were awarded to London back in 2005 in order to make room for the Olympic Park. While this erasure was not of the scale seen in Beijing, it was nonetheless notable. The immediate site itself and the wider Lea Valley area that surrounds it were home to a range of industries, including the manufacture of armaments, and this was  where gasoline was first refined. St. Etienne made a fascinating film about the area in 2005 called What have you done today, Mervyn Day? More historically but also ignored by commentators,  the games sat directly on the site of what was once the largest locomotive construction and repair shops in the world, where for a century and a half thousands of workers had built and maintained rolling stock for the Great Eastern and other railway companies. The local authority has an oral history section featuring some of those who worked at the site.

So class was strangely both absent and present at the London games in the summer of 2012. At times it was portrayed in graphic historical terms but not as something live in the present. Working-class culture, protest, and struggle were boxed off in a past represented by bygone industry, the parts of industrial workers played by members of the new economy. But for those of us who take the time to look, working-class culture surrounded both the sport played in the venues and the sites themselves.  In four years time it with be Rio’s turn to host the games, I wonder what stories of class will be told or left untold then. But as Jacques Rogge claims, the IOC are “working-class people,” so surely we can count on them?

Tim Strangleman

The Trouble with Work: Rethinking “Working Class”

Last month, I blogged about the challenges of teaching an analysis of the US class structure that recognizes our sizeable working-class majority and critiques the myth of the broad inclusive “middle class.”    I closed by questioning what’s at stake for us in posing this analysis and how effective it can be in the present moment for teaching and political organizing.   A number of you responded, including a forceful reminder that Karl Marx had some important things to say about classes.   A point well taken, since Marxism still provides, I believe, the most comprehensive account of how class operates in society, including culture, politics, and economics.

By leaving Marx out, I sidestepped his analysis of how class antagonism arises within the relations of production under capitalism, based on the exploitation of workers’ labor power.  I also avoided the complicated question of the status of middle classes in a Marxist account — a topic addressed, as another respondent reminded us, by sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who has written about the “contradictory location” of the middle classes, who share properties of both capitalists and workers.   Another commentator, Richard Butsch, described a college sociology course in which the concept of “ownership of the means of production” is used to explain relative class positions and life chances.    This approach would make clear that even workers whose income provides a middle-class “lifestyle” are working-class in relation to the means of production, which is owned by capitalists.

This is the case made by many of us in Working-Class Studies for the importance of deploying an accurate class vocabulary.  In “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” Jack Metzgar wrote that the “task of working-class studies should be . . . to constantly probe what users [of the vernacular] mean when they say ‘middle class,’ and to use ‘working class’ consistently and rigorously to refer to all those purported members of the middle class who are not middle-class professionals.” Metzgar argues that this confusion over who is middle class matters because it negatively affects working-class interests in politics and public policy. I would add that the American class vernacular tells us little about how classes are formed and maintained within capitalism, much less about why class relations need to be radically transformed.   For that, we need the concept of the working class.

Using the term “working class” has important benefits, but I also want to pose some difficulties arising in its stress on “working.”

A prime benefit of the term is its recognition of the position of the working class as both a creation of capitalism and a source of resistance to it.  The key idea it contains is that this is the class that actually does the work, producing the goods and services society needs.  In Marxist terms, the working class sells the labor power from which the owners of the means of production extract the surplus value that becomes capital.  The workplace is then the primary location of the exploitation of human labor and of the subordination of the worker to the will of the capitalist.  Consequently, as Michael Denning puts it, “The workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society.”

By the same token, it has also been the site of resistance through the collective refusal to work or the demand to alter working conditions.  Always, at work, whether we know it or not, we are engaged in a political situation, a struggle over power and freedom.  We are better able to explain this systemic class conflict, the argument goes, when we recognize the position of the working class within capitalism.

But are there also difficulties in our use of  “working class,” apart from its lack of currency in the popular vernacular?  “Working people” are after all not the only people who work: members of the professional middle class work pretty hard, as, I imagine, do some hedge fund managers.  Some of my students draw the ready conclusion that all who work are by definition working class, and conversely, that those who don’t are not.  Stressing the “working” status of this majority class can obscure the fact of joblessness and the distress it causes, as a recurring hazard of being working-class.   Furthermore, because unemployment often leads to poverty, unemployed workers become aligned with “the poor,” who in the American class vernacular constitute a separate non-productive class at the bottom of society. As Metzgar puts it, “The poor are in fact part of the working class, and poverty, near-poverty, and the fear of poverty are an endemic part of working-class life.”

Beyond this problem, there is a deeper difficulty with the concept of working class as it affects our capacity to imagine alternatives to the current regime of capitalist production, with its attendant unemployment and precariousness.   By naming work as the primary source of identity and value, we adopt the work ethic that legitimizes that regime, and we reinforce the subordinate position of the working class within it.   Working is what workers do; when they are not doing it they are deficient in their identities and in their social contribution.  Our personal worth is thus massively over-identified with the work we perform.  Conversely, the focus on the work we do delegitimizes the many other activities (cultural, social, familial, sexual, political) through which we create value, pleasure and freedom, for ourselves and others – all of which require time away from work.

Kathi Weeks develops this critique of the “work society” in The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011).   Weeks asks, “Why do we work so long and so hard?”  –  particularly when most jobs are boring and repetitive, unfairly remunerated, and coercively bossed.   In addressing this question, she looks not only to the exploitive relations of production Marx analyzed, but also to the Protestant work ethic and its contemporary incarnations.  She shows how deeply the work ethic is embedded in our social thinking and how it serves the interests of capital by promoting our allegiance to work as “a basic obligation of citizenship.” She also demonstrates also how a “laborist” version of the work ethic has been adopted by the working class, to the extent that socialism came to represent “a vision of the work society perfected rather than transformed.”  In envisioning alternatives to the regime of the wage labor society, therefore, Weeks finds it “difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.”   Similarly, “it seems unlikely that socialism can serve as a persuasive signifier of a postcapitalist alternative.”

In place of class struggle, Weeks proposes a struggle over the politics of work itself, which would encompass the goals of both freedom in work and freedom from work.  Since, as Marx wrote, “waged work without other options is a system of ‘forced labor,’” the solution to current economic problems would not then be full employment, on either a capitalist or state-socialist model, but in Weeks’s terms, “an alternative to a life centered on work.”   Resources for such “antiwork politics” and “postwork imaginaries” can be found, she suggests, in the theories and projects of European autonomous Marxists and their “refusal of work,” and of 1970s American feminism with its critique of the gendered labor of social reproduction – which, although unwaged, is essential to capitalist production.

Weeks is also interested in rehabilitating the practical usefulness of utopian thinking. She discusses proposals that offer alternatives to a life dominated by work, such as the 30-hour work week and the provision of a guaranteed basic income to all.  These proposals are utopian in that they envision a profound transformation of the work society in the direction of greater equality and freedom.  But they are not therefore impractical.  I don’t have space to recite the times and places in which these projects have been proposed and tested – a Google search took me well beyond Weeks’s examples.  But clearly there is not now – if indeed there ever was – an authentic need for all capable adults to engage in long hours of alienating labor.  Advances in technology and productivity suggest that basic needs could be met if all those who wish to work worked far fewer hours and if the products of their labor were more equitably distributed.    But then, what would the working class (and the middle class for that matter) do if they weren’t working (or looking for work) all the time?  Imagine the possibilities!

Nick Coles